Mind-Bending Mixed Reality is Coming

Magic-Leap-screenshot

Wired profiles a stealthy startup tech company that garnered lots of insider interest and piles of funding. The company is called Magic Leap. It’s raked in $1.4 billion in venture funds from industry luminaries including Google, Qualcomm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Vulcan Capital, and Andreessen Horowitz.

Like several hundred other companies Magic Leap is developing a virtual reality (VR) system. But what sets Magic Leap apart from many of its competitors is its focus on mixed reality (MR). Mixed reality overlays VR onto the real world. This allows synthetic constructions of VR to be superimposed over actual visual surroundings.

VR technologists agree that MR systems are much more difficult to construct than fully immersive VR, but provide much richer and compelling user experiences. Magic Leap calls their technology Cinematic Reality. That’s where the story of Magic Leap begins.

In the company’s own words:

Using our Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal™, imagine being able to generate images indistinguishable from real objects and then being able to place those images seamlessly into the real world.

From Wired:

There is something special happening in a generic office park in an uninspiring suburb near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Inside, amid the low gray cubicles, clustered desks, and empty swivel chairs, an impossible 8-inch robot drone from an alien planet hovers chest-high in front of a row of potted plants. It is steampunk-cute, minutely detailed. I can walk around it and examine it from any angle. I can squat to look at its ornate underside. Bending closer, I bring my face to within inches of it to inspect its tiny pipes and protruding armatures. I can see polishing swirls where the metallic surface was “milled.” When I raise a hand, it approaches and extends a glowing appendage to touch my fingertip. I reach out and move it around. I step back across the room to view it from afar. All the while it hums and slowly rotates above a desk. It looks as real as the lamps and computer monitors around it. It’s not. I’m seeing all this through a synthetic-reality headset. Intellectually, I know this drone is an elaborate simulation, but as far as my eyes are concerned it’s really there, in that ordinary office. It is a virtual object, but there is no evidence of pixels or digital artifacts in its three-dimensional fullness.

If I reposition my head just so, I can get the virtual drone to line up in front of a bright office lamp and perceive that it is faintly transparent, but that hint does not impede the strong sense of it being present. This, of course, is one of the great promises of artificial reality—either you get teleported to magical places or magical things get teleported to you. And in this prototype headset, created by the much speculated about, ultrasecretive company called Magic Leap, this alien drone certainly does seem to be transported to this office in Florida—and its reality is stronger than I thought possible.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Magic Leap MR screenshot. The hands live in the real world, the miniature elephant lives in a digitized VR world.

 

Divergence

chart-income-and-wealth-inequality

Columnist Thomas B. Edsall over at the NYT offers an incisive article on the diverging fortunes and misfortunes of Americans in the top and bottom fifths of the population as measured by income. We’ve all become accustomed to hearing about the concentration of wealth and power by the 0.1 percent and even the 1 percent. But the separation between the top 10-20 percent and bottom 10-20 percent is no less stark. This separation in income and wealth is now increasingly fracturing the United States along various fault lines: geography, educational attainment, health care access, race and class.

From NYT:

For years now, people have been talking about the insulated world of the top 1 percent of Americans, but the top 20 percent of the income distribution is also steadily separating itself — by geography and by education as well as by income.

This self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.

The accompanying chart, taken from “The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation,” a March 2016 paper by Sean F. Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford, and Kendra Bischoff, a professor of sociology at Cornell, demonstrates the accelerating geographic isolation of the well-to-do — the upper middle and upper classes (a pattern of isolation that also applies to the poor, with devastating effect).

In hard numbers, the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent.

At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Chart showing income and wealth inequality, 1913?2014, from “The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation”, March 2016. Courtesy: Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff.

 

Practice May Make You Perfect, But Not Creative

Practice will help you improve in a field with well-defined and well-developed tasks, processes and rules. This includes areas like sports and musicianship. Though, keep in mind that it may indeed take some accident of genetics to be really good at one of these disciplines in the first place.

But, don’t expect practice to make you better in all areas of life, particularly in creative endeavors. Creativity stems from original thought not replicable behavior. Scott Kaufman director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania reminds us of this in a recent book review.” The authors of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, psychologist Anders Ericsson and journalist Robert Pool, review a swath of research on human learning and skill acquisition and conclude that deliberate, well-structured practice can help anyone master new skills. I think we can all agree with this conclusion.

But like Kaufman I believe that many creative “skills” lie in an area of human endeavor that is firmly beyond the assistance of practice. Most certainly practice will help an artist hone and improve her brushstrokes; but practice alone will not bring forth her masterpiece. So, here is a brief summary of 12 key elements that Kaufman distilled from over 50 years of research studies into creativity:

Excerpts from Creativity Is Much More Than 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice by Scott Kaufman:

  1. Creativity is often blind. If only creativity was all about deliberate practice… in reality, it’s impossible for creators to know completely whether their new idea or product will be well received.
  2. Creative people often have messy processes. While expertise is characterized by consistency and reliability, creativity is characterized by many false starts and lots and lots of trial-and-error.
  3. Creators rarely receive helpful feedback. When creators put something novel out into the world, the reactions are typically either acclaim or rejection
  4. The “10-Year Rule” is not a rule. The idea that it takes 10 years to become a world-class expert in any domain is not a rule. [This is the so-called Ericsson rule from his original paper on deliberate practice amongst musicians.]
  5. Talent is relevant to creative accomplishment. If we define talent as simply the rate at which a person acquires expertise, then talent undeniably matters for creativity.
  6. Personality is relevant. Not only does the speed of expertise acquisition matter, but so do a whole host of other traits. People differ from one another in a multitude of ways… At the very least, research has shown that creative people do tend to have a greater inclination toward nonconformity, unconventionality, independence, openness to experience, ego strength, risk taking, and even mild forms of psychopathology.
  7. Genes are relevant. [M]odern behavioral genetics has discovered that virtually every single psychological trait — including the inclination and willingness to practice — is influenced by innate genetic endowment.
  8. Environmental experiences also matter. [R]esearchers have found that many other environmental experiences substantially affect creativity– including socioeconomic origins, and the sociocultural, political, and economic context in which one is raised.
  9. Creative people have broad interests. While the deliberate practice approach tends to focus on highly specialized training… creative experts tend to have broader interests and greater versatility compared to their less creative expert colleagues.
  10. Too much expertise can be detrimental to creative greatness. The deliberate practice approach assumes that performance is a linear function of practice. Some knowledge is good, but too much knowledge can impair flexibility.
  11. Outsiders often have a creative advantage. If creativity were all about deliberate practice, then outsiders who lack the requisite expertise shouldn’t be very creative. But many highly innovative individuals were outsiders to the field in which they contributed. Many marginalized people throughout history — including immigrants — came up with highly creative ideas not in spite of their experiences as an outsider, but because of their experiences as an outsider.
  12. Sometimes the creator needs to create a new path for others to deliberately practice. Creative people are not just good at solving problems, however. They are also good at finding problems.

In my view the most salient of Kaufman’s dozen ingredients for creativity are #11 and #12 — and I can personally attest to their importance: fresh ideas are more likely to come from outsiders; and, creativeness in one domain often stems from experiences in another, unrelated, realm.

Read Kaufman’s enlightening article in full here.

PhotoMash: CEO Pay For Failure Versus CEO Pay For Success

Photomash-Mayer-vs-SorrellToday’s PhotoMash is a stark reminder that many corporate CEOs live by different rules, which they tend to conjure up themselves.

The PhotoMash comes courtesy of the Guardian on April 19, 2016.

On the one hand we see Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo since 2012. She has presided over the demise of Yahoo — loss of search business to Google, loss of ad share to Facebook, failed investments in new business ventures in the billions of dollars. Yet, since taking over Yahoo Meyer has taken home around $78 million. Further, she’s on the hook to collect another $59 million should Yahoo’s takeover spark her dismissal. Admittedly, Yahoo’s stock price has rallied in recent years, but most analysts attribute this solely to Yahoo’s stake in China’s Alibaba.

One the other hand we have Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP. Over the last 30 years he’s built WPP from a small UK-based wire and plastics manufacturer, which he used as a shell company, into the world’s leading marketing and advertising services company. By current estimates WPP is valued at around $30 billion. Of late he’s been defending his latest compensation package estimated at $100 million.

Both Meyer and Sorrell tell us they’re worth every penny of remuneration to their companies and shareholders. But while it could be argued that both are earning rather too much compared with the 99.999 percent, only one is deserving. And, that shows the crux of the issue — regardless of success or failure, most CEOs will always win.

Image: Screen shot from the Guardian, April 19, 2016.

Climate Change Equals Less Weather Predictability

NASA-Icemelt1

Severe weather often leads to human tragedy, and of course our crops, pets and property suffer too, as well as untold damage to numerous ecosystems. But whenever I see or read about a weather-induced catastrophe — local flooding or a super-typhoon halfway around the world — one thought always comes to mind: what kind of weather will my children face as long-term climate change takes hold.

Climate science offers continued predictions of doom and gloom: rising ocean levels, disappearing glaciers, stronger storms, longer droughts, more extreme weather.

But climate science also tells us that long-term climate change will make for generally less predictable weather. Our present day meteorologists armed with powerful computational climate models have become rather good at forecasting weather on local and global levels. Generally, we have a reasonably good idea of what our local weather will be tomorrow or next week or next month.

But a warming and changing climate adds much more uncertainty. William B. Gail, founder of the Global Weather Corporation and past president of the American Meteorological Society, cautions: there is a growing likelihood of increased unpredictability of our weather systems. Indeed, he predicts a new dark age, where climate change destroys our current understanding of weather patterns and undermines all our current, predictive weather models and forecasts. This is a huge problem for those of us who depend on accurate weather analytics for our livelihoods, especially farmers, fishing industries, aviation, ground transportation, and construction.

From NYT:

Imagine a future in which humanity’s accumulated wisdom about Earth — our vast experience with weather trends, fish spawning and migration patterns, plant pollination and much more — turns increasingly obsolete. As each decade passes, knowledge of Earth’s past becomes progressively less effective as a guide to the future. Civilization enters a dark age in its practical understanding of our planet.

To comprehend how this could occur, picture yourself in our grandchildren’s time, a century hence. Significant global warming has occurred, as scientists predicted. Nature’s longstanding, repeatable patterns — relied on for millenniums by humanity to plan everything from infrastructure to agriculture — are no longer so reliable. Cycles that have been largely unwavering during modern human history are disrupted by substantial changes in temperature and precipitation.

As Earth’s warming stabilizes, new patterns begin to appear. At first, they are confusing and hard to identify. Scientists note similarities to Earth’s emergence from the last ice age. These new patterns need many years — sometimes decades or more — to reveal themselves fully, even when monitored with our sophisticated observing systems. Until then, farmers will struggle to reliably predict new seasonal patterns and regularly plant the wrong crops. Early signs of major drought will go unrecognized, so costly irrigation will be built in the wrong places. Disruptive societal impacts will be widespread.

Such a dark age is a growing possibility. In a recent report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that human-caused global warming was already altering patterns of some extreme weather events. But the report did not address the broader implication — that disrupting nature’s patterns could extend well beyond extreme weather, with far more pervasive impacts.

Our foundation of Earth knowledge, largely derived from historically observed patterns, has been central to society’s progress. Early cultures kept track of nature’s ebb and flow, passing improved knowledge about hunting and agriculture to each new generation. Science has accelerated this learning process through advanced observation methods and pattern discovery techniques. These allow us to anticipate the future with a consistency unimaginable to our ancestors.

But as Earth warms, our historical understanding will turn obsolete faster than we can replace it with new knowledge. Some patterns will change significantly; others will be largely unaffected, though it will be difficult to say what will change, by how much, and when.

The list of possible disruptions is long and alarming. We could see changes to the prevalence of crop and human pests, like locust plagues set off by drought conditions; forest fire frequency; the dynamics of the predator-prey food chain; the identification and productivity of reliably arable land, and the predictability of agriculture output.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Image pair of Muir Glacier and melt, Alaska. Left photo taken in 1882, by G.D. Hazard; Right photo taken in 2005 by Bruce F. Molnia. Courtesy: Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology. NASA.

 

MondayMap: A is Blue; B is Red

MPK1-426_Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916

A hundred years ago the first two letters of the alphabet and a somewhat arbitrary line drawn on a map changed the Earth’s geopolitical axis. The ramifications continue to be felt across the globe to this day.

The waning days of WWI finally precipitated the decline of the once vast Ottoman Empire. During this period the eventual victors, the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, and Russia, began secretly planning how they would carve up the spoils, which covered much of the Middle East. With Russia then succumbing to its own revolution, Britain and France were free to delineate their own “spheres of influence”, allocating huge areas of territory (and peoples) to themselves and their appointed heirs. “A” was to be blue and would belong to France; the region covered what is now Syria, Lebanon, northern Iraq and parts of Turkey. “B” was to be red and would be administered by the British; it covered modern-day Jordan, southern Iraq and parts of what is now Israel.

The agreement and the new map were negotiated in 1915-16 by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, respectively. It was signed on May 16, 1916, and became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The secret deal reneged on numerous promises and assurances made to leaders in the region, and subsequently disenfranchised entire populations for generations.

Read more about the map, the secret deal and the hundred years of turbulent and bloody consequence in David Fromkin’s book, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989).

Map: Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Courtesy: Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 16 May 1916.

Coffee Grounds, Gigs and Gentrification

Istanbul_cafe

There are around 55,000 coffee shops in the United States. Almost a quarter of this number (11,600) belongs to the Starbucks chain. That’s an awful lot of lattes and frappuccinos. My home town, Boulder, has around 250, which for a small city of 100,000 is a substantial number, and luckily, for the most part, they’re gloriously independent and funky.

Coffee shops, coffeehouses and cafés now encircle the globe like rampant dandelions. But before the increasingly homogenizing effect of chains like Starbucks (in the US) and Costa Coffee (in the UK) coffee shops played a key role in the social fabric of our urban jungles. For hundreds of years coffee shops have been places to read, meet and discuss issues of the day.

Records show the first coffeehouses appeared in Damascus and Egypt in the early-16th century. Patrons gathered there to discuss politics, to listen to their local storytellers and musicians, and, of course, to drink coffee. While coffee shops are often denigrated as symptoms of urban gentrification or as remote office locations for armies of gig economy workers, others call them home — they’re still, after all, places for refuge, conversation and real social interaction. Save me a skinny latte!

From the Guardian:

It’s a bright February morning at the Proud Archivist (now the Proud East), a coffee shop facing the canal just off Kingsland Road in London, and regular Matthew Green is greeting the manager as if they’re old friends. Their cheerful interaction rises above the low din of the subdued crowd, some of whom are chatting, most of whom are typing away on laptops.

The fact that the Proud East is one of about five similar cafes within a five-minute walk in this Dalston neighbourhood brings to mind the fact that, in the past decade or so, the words: “There are a lot of coffee shops opening up around there” has become a precursor for: “There goes the neighbourhood.”

But if Green – who as well as being a regular is also a coffee historian, earned his PhD from Oxford and leads historical coffee tours around London – had his way, coffee houses like the Proud East would help facilitate something entirely different than gentrification: meaningful interaction.

One can almost imagine Green walking into a late 17th-century London coffee house and uttering the salutation that, he says, was de rigueur: “What news have you?” Today, it’s fair to say that’s been replaced by a more modern (and loathed) version: “What’s the WiFi password?”

However, as the coffee shop has become a byword for what everyone hates about urban change and gentrification – first come the creatives and their coffee shops, then the young professionals, then the luxury high-rises and corporate chains that push out original residents – it’s worth asking if that charge is fair. As the function of the coffee house in London has evolved over time, was its early iteration so radically different than the ones many of us type and sip away in today?

To hear Green tell it, there have been three major spikes in speciality coffee culture in the UK over the past 350 years. The first began when a Greek man, Pasqua Rosée, opened the first coffee house in 1652 against the stone wall of St Michael’s churchyard near Cornhill in London. That sludge-like coffee, Green says, was in keeping with the Turkish proverb: “Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.”

Over the next 50 years, as the coffee house became a popular alternative to taverns and alehouses, they also became something else: a place for London’s “coffee house politicians” to air their grievances. One could argue that these intelligentsia and knowledge economy workers – Samuel Peyps and Sir Isaac Newton were regulars – were not too dissimilar to the types of freelancers and creative class workers we find in places like The Proud East today. But instead of ranting on Twitter or in the comments section of newspapers, Green says patrons of London’s early coffee houses revelled in the novelty of boisterously voicing their opinions to their (almost exclusively male) companions.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Istanbul cafe, watercolor, created 1850-1882. Courtesy: Amedeo Preziosi / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Facebook’s Growing Filter Bubble

I’ve been writing about the filter bubble for quite sometime. The filter bubble refers to the tendency for online search tools, and now social media, to screen and deliver results that fit our online history and profile thereby returning only results that are deemed relevant. Eli Pariser coined the term in his book The Filter Bubble, published in 2011.

The filter bubble presents us with a clear faustian bargain: give up knowledge and serendipitous discovery of the wider world for narrow, personalized news and information that matches our immediate needs and agrees with our profile.

The great irony is that our technologies promise a limitless, interconnected web of data and information, but these same technologies ensure that we will see only the small sliver of information that passes through our personal, and social, filters. This consigns us to live inside our very own personal echo chambers, separated from disagreeable information that does not pass criteria in our profiles or measures gleaned across our social networks.

So, we should all be concerned as Facebook turns its attention to delivering and filtering news, and curating it in a quest for a more profitable return. Without question we are in the early stages of the reinvention of journalism as a whole and digital news in particular. The logical conclusion of this evolution has yet to be written, but it is certainly clear that handing so much power over the dissemination of news and information to one company cannot be in our long-term interests. If Mr. Zuckerberg and team deem certain political news to be personally distasteful or contrary to their corporate mission, should we sit back and allow them to filter it for us? I think not.

From Wired:

When Facebook News Feed guru Will Cathcart took the stage at F8 to talk about news, the audience was packed. Some followed along on Twitter. Others streamed the session online. Journalists, developers, and media types all clamored to catch a glimpse of “Creating Value for News Publishers and Readers on Facebook”—value that has become the most coveted asset in the news business as Facebook becomes a primary way the public finds and shares news.

As Cathcart kicked off the session, he took the captive audience to a Syrian refugee camp via Facebook’s new, innovative, and immersive 360 video experience. He didn’t say much about where the camp was (“I believe in Greece?”), nor anything about the camp situation. He didn’t offer the audio of the journalist describing the scene. No matter!

The refugee camp is a placeholder. A placeholder, in fact, that has become so overused that it was actually the second time yesterday that Facebook execs waved their hands about the importance of media before playing a video clip of refugees. It could have been a tour of the White House, the Boston bombing, Coachella. It could have been anything to Facebook. It’s “content.” It’s a commodity. What matters to Facebook is the product it’s selling—and who’s buying is you and the news industry.

What Facebook is selling you is pretty simple. It’s selling an experience, part of which includes news. That experience is dependent on content creators—you know, journalists and newsrooms—who come up with ideas, use their own resources to realize them, and then put them out into the world. All of which takes time, money, and skill. For its “media partners” (the CNNs, BuzzFeeds, and WIREDs of the world), Facebook is selling a promise that their future will be bright if they use Facebook’s latest news products to distribute those new, innovative, and immersive stories to Facebook’s giant audience.

The only problem is that Facebook’s promise isn’t a real one. It’s false hope; or at its worst, a threat.

Read the entire article here.

Dishonesty and Intelligence

Another day, another survey. This time it’s one that links honesty and intelligence. Apparently, the more intelligent you are — as measured by a quick intelligence test — the less likely you’ll be to lie. Fascinatingly, the survey also shows that those who do lie from the small subgroup of the most intelligent tell smaller whoppers; people in the less intelligent subgroup tell bigger lies, for a bigger payoff.

From Washington Post:

Last summer, a couple of researchers ran a funny experiment about honesty. They went to an Israeli shopping mall and recruited people, one-by-one, into a private booth. Alone inside the booth, each subject rolled a six-sided die. Then they stepped out and reported the number that came up.

There was an incentive to lie. The higher the number, the more money people received. If they rolled a one, they got a bonus of about $2.50. If they rolled a two, they got a bonus of $5, and so on. If they rolled a six, the bonus was about $15. (Everyone also received $5 just for participating.)

Before I reveal the results, think about what you would do in that situation. Someone comes up to you at the mall and offers you free money to roll a die. If you wanted to make a few extra bucks, you could lie about what you rolled. Nobody would know, and nobody would be harmed.

Imagine you went into that booth and rolled a 1. What would you do? Would you be dishonest? Would you say you rolled a six, just to get the largest payout?

The researchers, Bradley Ruffle of Wilfrid Laurier University and Yossef Tobol, of the Jerusalem College of Technology, wanted to know what kinds of people would lie in this situation. So they asked everyone about their backgrounds, whether they considered themselves honest, whether they thought honesty was important. They asked whether people were employed, how much money they earned, and whether they were religious. They also gave people a quick intelligence test.

Out of all those attributes, brainpower stood out. Smarter people were less likely to lie about the number they rolled.

It didn’t matter whether they claimed they were honest or not; it didn’t matter whether they were religious, whether they were male or female, or whether they lived in a city. Money didn’t seem to be a factor either. Even after controlling for incomes, the researchers found that the most honest people were the ones who scored highest on the intelligence test.

Read the entire article here.

Man Sues God

Europe-a-Prophecy

A quick accounting shows that there are around 1.3 million lawyers in the US, so it’s no surprise that we are constantly surrounded by stories of thoroughly ridiculous lawsuits. Just a few to whet your appetite:

Animal rights group sues on behalf of monkey for ownership of selfies.

Bank robber gets shot by deputy; sues city for $6.3 million in medical bills.

Prison inmate suing the NFL for $88 billion over the 2015 cowboy’s playoff loss.

And, how can we forget the seemingly annual occurrence of a coffeeshop patron suing for $millions over a coffee spill.

So, please forgive me for initially thinking that the following lawsuit was instigated by a blasphemous American and his or her posse of attorneys.

Though, it does seem a little odd that we humans — those who believe in the supreme deity — haven’t sued before, but for more substantial contractual breaches: failing to stop cycles of genocide; aiding in the environmental destruction of creation; instilling hatred and intolerance in humanity; allowing inequality and injustice to thrive, and so on.

From the Independent:

An Israeli man has petitioned for a restraining order against God, claiming the almighty has been particularly unkind to him over the years and that the police are unable to do anything.

The man, named by Israeli news site NRG as David Shoshan, represented himself at a court hearing in Haifa, a port city in the north of Israel. The report noted that God was not present to defend himself.

The court heard God had been particularly unkind to Mr Shoshan, treating him “harshly and not nicely”, though no specific details were given about what exactly had happened to make him feel this way.

Mr Shoshan claimed he made several attempts to contact police to report God’s alleged crimes, and that patrol cars had been sent to his house on 10 occasions.

However, the measure was ineffective against the deity and police advised him to take out a restraining order.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Europe a Prophesy. The Ancient of Days (1794). Watercolor etching by William Blake. Courtesy: William Blake Archive. Public Domain.

Meet the Chatbot Speech Artist

While speech recognition technology has been in the public sphere for several decades, Silicon Valley has re-discovered it with a renewed fervor. Companies from the tech giants, such as Facebook and Amazon, down to dozens of start-ups and their VC handlers have declared the next few years those of the chatbot; natural language-based messaging is the next big thing.

Thanks to Apple the most widespread incarnation of the chatbot is of course Siri — a personalized digital assistant capable of interacting with a user through a natural language conversation (well, almost). But while the parsing and understanding of human conversation, and the construction of chatbot responses, is all done via software — the vocalizations themselves are human. As a result, a new career field is opening up for enterprising speech artists.

From Washington Post:

Until recently, Robyn Ewing was a writer in Hollywood, developing TV scripts and pitching pilots to film studios.

Now she’s applying her creative talents toward building the personality of a different type of character — a virtual assistant, animated by artifical intelligence, that interacts with sick patients.

Ewing works with engineers on the software program, called Sophie, which can be downloaded to a smartphone. The virtual nurse gently reminds users to check their medication, asks them how they are feeling or if they are in pain, and then sends the data to a real doctor.

As tech behemoths and a wave of start-ups double down on virtual assistants that can chat with human beings, writing for AI is becoming a hot job in Silicon Valley. Behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just software engineers. Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools.

“Maybe this will help pay back all the student loans,” joked Ewing, who has master’s degrees from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and film school.

Unlike the fictional characters that Ewing developed in Hollywood, who are put through adventures, personal trials and plot twists, most virtual assistants today are designed to perform largely prosaic tasks, such as reading through email, sending meetings reminders or turning off the lights as you shout across the room.

But a new crop of virtual assistant start-ups, whose products will soon flood the market, have in mind more ambitious bots that can interact seamlessly with human beings.

Because this wave of technology is distinguished by the ability to chat, writers for AI must focus on making the conversation feel natural. Designers for Amazon’s Alexa have built humanizing “hmms” and “ums” into her responses to questions. Apple’s Siri assistant is known for her wry jokes, as well as her ability to beatbox upon request.

As in fiction, the AI writers for virtual assistants dream up a life story for their bots. Writers for medical and productivity apps make character decisions such as whether bots should be workaholics, eager beavers or self-effacing. “You have to develop an entire backstory — even if you never use it,” Ewing said.

Even mundane tasks demand creative effort, as writers try to build personality quirks into the most rote activities. At the start-up x.ai, a Harvard theater graduate is tasked with deciding whether its scheduling bots, Amy and Andrew, should use emojis or address people by first names. “We don’t want people saying, ‘Your assistant is too casual — or too much,’?” said Anna Kelsey, whose title is AI interaction designer. “We don’t want her to be one of those crazy people who uses 15 million exclamation points.”

Virtual assistant start-ups garnered at least $35 million in investment over the past year, according to CBInsights and Washington Post research (This figure doesn’t count the many millions spent by tech giants Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft).

The surge of investor interest in virtual assistants that can converse has been fueled in part by the popularity of messaging apps, such as WeChat, WhatsApp, and Facebook’s Messenger, which are among the most widely downloaded smartphone applications. Investors see that users are increasingly drawn to conversational platforms, and hope to build additional features into them.

Read the entire story here.

The Case For Planet Nine

Planet_nine_artistic-impression

First, let me say that Pluto should never have been downgraded to the status of “dwarf planet”. The recent (and ongoing) discoveries by NASA’s New Horizons probe show Pluto’s full, planetary glory: kilometer high mountains, flowing glaciers, atmospheric haze, organic compounds, complex and colorful landforms. So, in my mind Pluto still remains as the ninth planet in our beautiful solar system.

However, many astronomers have moved on and are getting excited over the possibility of a new Planet Nine. The evidence for its existence is mounting and comes mostly from models that infer the presence of a massive object far-beyond Pluto, which is influencing the orbits of asteroids and even some of the outer planets.

From Scientific American:

The hunt is on to find “Planet Nine”—a large undiscovered world, perhaps 10 times as massive as Earth and four times its size—that scientists think could be lurking in the outer solar system. After Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, two planetary scientists from the California Institute of Technology, presented evidence for its existence this January, other teams have searched for further proof by analyzing archived images and proposing new observations to find it with the world’s largest telescopes.

Just this month, evidence from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn helped close in on the missing planet. Many experts suspect that within as little as a year someone will spot the unseen world, which would be a monumental discovery that changes the way we view our solar system and our place in the cosmos. “Evidence is mounting that something unusual is out there—there’s a story that’s hard to explain with just the standard picture,” says David Gerdes, a cosmologist at the University of Michigan who never expected to find himself working on Planet Nine. He is just one of many scientists who leapt at the chance to prove—or disprove—the team’s careful calculations.

Batygin and Brown made the case for Planet Nine’s existence based on its gravitational effect on several Kuiper Belt objects—icy bodies that circle the sun beyond Neptune’s orbit. Theoretically, though, its gravity should also tug slightly on the planets.* With this in mind, Agnès Fienga at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France and her colleagues checked whether a theoretical model (one that they have been perfecting for over a decade) with the new addition of Planet Nine could better explain slight perturbations seen in Saturn’s orbit as observed by Cassini.* Without it, the other seven planets in the solar system, 200 asteroids and five of the most massive Kuiper Belt objects cannot perfectly account for it.* The missing puzzle piece might just be a ninth planet.

So Fienga and her colleagues compared the updated model, which placed Planet Nine at various points in its hypothetical orbit, with the data. They found a sweet spot—with Planet Nine 600 astronomical units (about 90 billion kilometers) away toward the constellation Cetus—that can explain Saturn’s orbit quite well.* Although Fienga is not yet convinced that she has found the culprit for the planet’s odd movements, most outside experts are blown away.* “It’s a brilliant analysis,” says Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at Lick Observatory, who was not involved in the study. “It’s completely amazing that they were able to do that so quickly.” Gerdes agrees: “That’s a beautiful paper.”

The good news does not end there. If Planet Nine is located toward the constellation Cetus, then it could be picked up by the Dark Energy Survey, a Southern Hemisphere observation project designed to probe the acceleration of the universe. “It turns out fortuitously that the favored region from Cassini’s data is smack dab in the middle of our survey footprint,” says Gerdes, who is working on the cosmology survey.* “We could not have designed our survey any better.” Although the survey was not planned to search for solar system objects, Gerdes has discovered some (including one of the icy objects that led Batygin and Brown to conclude Planet Nine exists in the first place).

Read the entire article here.

Image: Artist’s impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune’s orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. Courtesy: Tomruen, nagualdesign / Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

The Rembrandt Algorithm

new-rembrandt

Over the last few decades robots have been steadily replacing humans in industrial and manufacturing sectors. Increasingly, robots are appearing in a broader array of service sectors; they’re stocking shelves, cleaning hotels, buffing windows, tending bar, dispensing cash.

Nowadays you’re likely to be the recipient of news articles filtered, and in some cases written, by pieces of code and business algorithms. Indeed, many boilerplate financial reports are now “written” by “analysts” who reside, not as flesh-and-bones, but virtually, inside server-farms. Just recently a collection of circuitry and software trounced a human being at the strategic board game, Go.

So, can computers progress from repetitive, mechanical and programmatic roles to more creative, free-wheeling vocations? Can computers become artists?

A group of data scientists, computer engineers, software developers and art historians set out to answer the question.

Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian has a few choice words on the result:

I’ve been away for a few days and missed the April Fool stories in Friday’s papers – until I spotted the one about a team of Dutch “data analysts, developers, engineers and art historians” creating a new painting using digital technology: a virtual Rembrandt painted by a Rembrandt app. Hilarious! But wait, this was too late to be an April Fool’s joke. This is a real thing that is actually happening.

What a horrible, tasteless, insensitive and soulless travesty of all that is creative in human nature. What a vile product of our strange time when the best brains dedicate themselves to the stupidest “challenges”, when technology is used for things it should never be used for and everybody feels obliged to applaud the heartless results because we so revere everything digital.

Hey, they’ve replaced the most poetic and searching portrait painter in history with a machine. When are we going to get Shakespeare’s plays and Bach’s St Matthew Passion rebooted by computers? I cannot wait for Love’s Labours Have Been Successfully Functionalised by William Shakesbot.

You cannot, I repeat, cannot, replicate the genius of Rembrandt van Rijn. His art is not a set of algorithms or stylistic tics that can be recreated by a human or mechanical imitator. He can only be faked – and a fake is a dead, dull thing with none of the life of the original. What these silly people have done is to invent a new way to mock art. Bravo to them! But the Dutch art historians and museums who appear to have lent their authority to such a venture are fools.

Rembrandt lived from 1606 to 1669. His art only has meaning as a historical record of his encounters with the people, beliefs and anguishes of his time. Its universality is the consequence of the depth and profundity with which it does so. Looking into the eyes of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, I am looking at time itself: the time he has lived, and the time since he lived. A man who stared, hard, at himself in his 17th-century mirror now looks back at me, at you, his gaze so deep his mottled flesh is just the surface of what we see.

We glimpse his very soul. It’s not style and surface effects that make his paintings so great but the artist’s capacity to reveal his inner life and make us aware in turn of our own interiority – to experience an uncanny contact, soul to soul. Let’s call it the Rembrandt Shudder, that feeling I long for – and get – in front of every true Rembrandt masterpiece..

Is that a mystical claim? The implication of the digital Rembrandt is that we get too sentimental and moist-eyed about art, that great art is just a set of mannerisms that can be digitised. I disagree. If it’s mystical to see Rembrandt as a special and unique human being who created unrepeatable, inexhaustible masterpieces of perception and intuition then count me a mystic.

Read the entire story here.

Image: The Next Rembrandt (based on 168,263 Rembrandt painting fragments). Courtesy: Microsoft, Delft University of Technology,  Mauritshuis (Hague), Rembrandt House Museum (Amsterdam).

Eurovision Comes to America

Jamie-Lee-Eurovision-2016

Mark your calendar. Saturday, May 14, 2016. On this day, for the first time ever the European psychodrama known as the Eurovision Song Contest comes to the United States. Stream the event here or catch it in the US on the Logo channel.

Here’s a quick overview for non-Europeans. Eurovision is the annual, continent-wide song contest — rather like football’s World Cup (soccer, for my US readers). Over 40 nations compete for the honor of best pop song. Since its origin in 1956, Eurovision has expanded beyond the boundaries of Europe to include entries from Israel, North Africa and even Australia. Around 200 million people tune in to watch the finals. The winner is chosen by a panel of judges from each nation, combined with votes from viewers. This year’s event is broadcast from Stockholm — the venue is selected based on the nationality of the previous year’s winner.

What makes it so popular? Well, it’s camp and kitschy. But, above all it’s a nationalistic festival wrapped in bubblegum: patriotic one-upmanship  under the guise of pop. Importantly, it allows nations to exhibit their superiority over neighboring countries without bloodshed. Let’s face it — if you’re British, there is nothing better than trouncing the French in Eurovision.

Read more details from NYT here.

Image: Jamie-Lee represents Germany in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest with Ghost. From the semi-final. Courtesy: Thomas Hanses (EBU).

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (and His AK47)

Many see the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the United States as a force for good. Many recognize the NRA as a force for evil. To some, it is the heroic protector of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. To others it is the organization that allows gun violence to take the lives of over 30,000 citizens each year.

Yet, did you know that the NRA is also in the business of publishing fairytales? Actually, the NRA publishes children’s classics that have been re-imagined to include guns. Now you can enjoy classics like Hansel and Gretel (Have Guns) and Little Red Riding Hood (Has a Gun), with wholly appropriate gun violence and NRA-fashioned endings, as they should have been intended.

So, I can’t wait for handguns, semi-automatic rifles and more instruments of efficient death to take a stand in our classic American literature: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (With an AK47),  Invisible Man (and Lots of Guns), The Great Gatsby (and His Glock 40), Moby Dick (and the Tomahawk Cruise Missile).

But, why stop there?

We need to re-imagine Shakespeare’s works complete with shotguns, and our best poetry would certainly benefit from several truck-loads of tactical nuclear weapons, And, of course it’s time to give Jesus a well-deserved sniper rifle and a couple of literary grenades to love fend of the Pharisees, devil, Pilate, and Judas Iscariot.

Thank you NRA for opening the minds of our children to real possibilities.

Bad Art of the Deal

Urinal-art

It goes without question that a billionaire narcissist — who just happens to be running for president of the United States in 2016 — will have any number of images of himself (there aren’t many billionaire narcissistic women). But for every photograph or artwork that celebrates and reinforces the narcissist — no doubt commissioned for or by the narcissist and hanging in a prominent spot in one each of his homes — there will be another work that seeks to counter the narcissist’s carefully curated image. This is what good political art does. It counters and questions, and it supplements our open political discourse so that we may see and weigh other perspectives.

Oh, and it’s sharply and darkly funny too!

Image: Donald Trump meets Rolling Stones-inspired urinals at Belushi’s sports bar in Paris. Artists: William Duke and Brandon Griffin have added. Photograph: Meike van Schijndel.

PhotoMash: A Tale of Two Nations

Photomash-Muslim-vs-anti-Muslim

Today’s (photo-)mashup comes from the front page of The Guardian, May 6, 2016. The kindly editors juxtaposed two stories that show the chasm between two kindred nations: the United States and the United Kingdom.

The first story reminds us that the United States now has a xenophobic, racist, anti-Muslim bully [I would use more suitable words, but my children sometimes read this blog] as its presumptive Republican nominee for President. The second story breaks news that a Muslim was just elected Mayor of London, the capital city.

One of these nations is moving forward; the direction of the other remains perplexing and disturbing.

Image: Screen shot from the Guardian, May 6, 2016.

A Career As An Existentialist, Perhaps?

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Philosophy isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days of the 4-hour debate over lunch on the merits of ethics, aesthetics and or metaphysics. Gone are the days of heated discussions over breakfast lattes on the philosophical traditions of existentialism versus rationalism. But we do still have a duty to think big and to ponder the great questions. So, why not become a part-time, if not professional, existentialist?

From the Guardian:

I was a teenage existentialist. I became one at 16 after spending birthday money from my granny on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. It was the cover that attracted me, with its Dalí painting of a dripping watch and sickly green rock formation, plus a blurb describing it as “a novel of the alienation of personality and the mystery of being”. I didn’t know what was mysterious about being, or what alienation meant – although I was a perfect example of it at the time. I just guessed that it would be my kind of book. Indeed it was: I bonded at once with its protagonist Antoine Roquentin, who drifts around his provincial seaside town staring at tree trunks and beach pebbles, feeling physical disgust at their sheer blobbish reality, and making scornful remarks about the bourgeoisie. The book inspired me: I played truant from school and tried drifting around my own provincial town of Reading. I even went to a park and tried to see the Being of a Tree. I didn’t quite glimpse it, but I did decide that I wanted to study philosophy, and especially this strange philosophy of Sartre’s, which I learned was “existentialism”.

I am convinced that existentialism should be seen as more than a fad, however, and that it still has something to offer us today. In a spirit of experiment, here are 10 possible reasons to be an existentialist – or at least to read their books with a fresh sense of curiosity.

1 Existentialists are philosophers of living

2 Existentialists really care about freedom

3 (Some) existentialists have interesting sex lives

4 Existentialists tackle painful realities

5 Existentialists try to be authentic

6 Existentialists think it matters what we do (and may stay up all night arguing about it)

7 Existentialists are not conformists

8 Existentialists can be fun to read

9 Existentialists also write about unconventional subjects

10 Existentialists think big

Read the entire article here.

 

 

 

Video: Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion, Monty Python. Courtesy of Monty Python / BBC.

Image: From left to right, top to bottom: Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Your Local Morality Police

Hot on the heals of my recent post on the thought police around the globe comes a more specific look at the morality police in selected Islamic nations.

I’ve written this before, and I’ll write it again: I am constantly reminded of my good fortune at having been born in (UK) and later moved to (US) nations that value freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

Though, the current electioneering in the US does have me wondering how a Christian evangelical theocracy under a President Cruz would look.

From the BBC:

Police forces tasked with implementing strict state interpretations of Islamic morality exist in several other states, including Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Malaysia.

Many – especially those with an affinity with Western lifestyles – chafe against such restrictions on daily life, but others support the idea, and growing religious conservatism has led to pressure for similar forces to be created in countries that do not have them.

Here are some places where “morality police” forces patrol:

IRAN

Name: Gasht-e Ershad (Persian for Guidance Patrols), supported by Basij militia

Who they are: Iran has had various forms of “morality police” since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the Gasht-e Ershad are currently the main agency tasked enforcing Iran’s Islamic code of conduct in public.

Their focus is on ensuring observance of hijab – mandatory rules requiring women to cover their hair and bodies and discouraging cosmetics.

SAUDI ARABIA

Name: Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or Mutawa (Arabic for Particularly obedient to God)

Who they are: Formed in 1940, the Mutawa is tasked with enforcing Islamic religious law – Sharia – in public places.

This includes rules forbidding unrelated males and females to socialise in public, as well as a dress code that encourages women to wear a veil covering all but their eyes.

Read the entire story here.

MondayMap: Thought Police

Map-Freedom-of-ThoughtThe inflammatory rhetoric of the US election gives me pause. Pretenders to the nation’s highest office include xenophobes and racists. Yet their words of fear and hate are protected by one of the simplest and most powerful sentences written in to law:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We should give thanks for these words every day. The words protect our utterances, thoughts, beliefs and associations.

Citizens in many other country’s are not so lucky. Some nations give preferential treatment to believers in the state-sanctioned religion and discriminate against those who don’t adhere. Other nations will severely persecute or punish their own people for blasphemy and/or apostasy.

Then there’s the list of 13, including: Somalia, Sudan, Mauritania, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Pakistan, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. Here you can be put to death for not believing or for criticizing or renouncing your state-imposed belief system.

Please visit the International Humanist and Ethical Union to read the full Freedom of Thought Report 2015. It makes for sobering reading — hard to believe we all live in the 21st century.

Image: Countries (in red) where apostasy is punishable by death. Courtesy of Independent / International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Satanists Snub Comparison of Cruz to Lucifer

Lucifero-Alessandro-Vellutello-1534

On April 30, 2016 Ben Gittleson, a journalist for ABC News, authored this headline:

Satanists Snub Comparison of Cruz to Lucifer

Surely it is the best political headline bar none. Ever. Period.

Click here, if you wish to read the actual story behind this 7-word masterpiece.

Image: Lucifer, by Alessandro Vellutello (1534), for Dante‘s Inferno, canto 34. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain.